Last Updated Jun 5, 2011 7:44 PM EDT
A week ago, independent artist Stevie Koerner got a distressing email from a customer that included a link to an Urban Outfitters jewelry line that bore a striking resemblance to Koerner's own design - a silver pendent of various states with a heart cutout in the middle. She calls it the United States of Love line.
That set into motion a series of events that never could have happened until recently:
- Koerner posted her story of the alleged Urban Outfitters ripoff on Tumblr.
- You Grow Girl Gayla Trail saw it and posted a link on her Facebook page.
- Gayla's online buddy Amber Karnes then took up the cause and tweeted this:
Long story short, it gets picked up by everyone from the Huffington Post to the Washington Post, the story goes viral, everybody and his brother thinks Urban Outfitters - which has been accused of this sort of thing before - is a stinking pile of dog poop, the brand takes a big hit, hurray for the little guy, end of story, right?
Not so fast.
Urban Outfitters may have been accused, tried, and convicted in the court of social media, but that's not the way it's supposed to work in the United States of Love ... I mean America.
You see, a couple of hundred years before Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, the "powers that be" came up with something called a legal system that was designed to handle this sort of thing. It's called intellectual property law and it's pretty darn clear about design infringement:
According to Oscar Michelen, an attorney with Cuomo LLC in New York, Koerner's claim would only be enforceable if she had patented or trademarked her design, which he said was unlikely since, "There is nothing unique about using a shape of Florida and a heart."
Wouldn't you know it, Michelen's right. In fact, a lawyer told Koerner the same thing when she tried to protect her design some time ago.
But wait, the story gets even better. You might expect Urban Outfitters to just roll over and play the "sorry for being such an evil corporate empire and screwing the little guy" card. But then, you'd be wrong.
According to CNBC, in a statement, the clothing retailer "unequivocally" denied Koerner's allegations because, get this, a search of state necklaces on the popular craft site Etsy reveals plenty of similar products that were around a year before Koerner's:
"We are not implying that Koerner stole her necklace idea from one of these other designers, we are simply stating the obvious-that the idea is not unique to Koerner and she can in no way claim to be its originator," the company said.How's that for an "in your face" moment?
Still, Urban Outfitters execs probably shouldn't hold their breath waiting for an apology from Koerner, Karnes, or anyone else who retweeted the boycott thing. I'd be willing to bet they stand by their allegations. Never mind little details like laws and facts or the damage to the company's thousands of employees and shareholders.
The whole sordid story brings to mind Toyota's "sudden acceleration" crisis that resulted in a record recall of millions of vehicles and a nearly catastrophic brand meltdown when, in fact, drivers were "mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes," according to the Wall Street Journal:
"The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that the throttles were wide open and the brakes weren't engaged at the time of the crash ..."The investigation did find some vehicles with "sticky" accelerator pedals and floor mats, but only one of 75 fatal crashes investigated by U.S. officials was actually caused by a problem with the vehicle. And let me tell you, floor mats causing accelerator pedals to stick is nothing new.
Compared with the ubiquitous media hype - social and mainstream - and grandstanding politicians outraged over Toyota's recalls, which were voluntarily, no less, that had to be the most underreported investigation in U.S. history.
As for what you and your company can do to prevent this kind of reputation meltdown before you even have a chance to react, allow me to suggest these five tips on How to Control Your Brand in the Age of Social Media, one of which deals with reacting to crisis:
- Respond dynamically to brand crisis. These days, problems become crises in real time. News travels at the speed of radio waves through air and light through fiber optics. If it happens, it gets tweeted and everyone knows it, just like that. That means plans and processes must be in place for dynamic response to crisis. If not, brands can suffer catastrophic damage in a day that takes years to undo.
Also check out:
- Poll: Does Social Media Actually Produce Results?
- 10 Creative Uses for Smartphones
- 20 Brand Names You Don't Realize Are Brand Names
Images: steveoarnold via Flickr, Amber Karnes, and Twitter